Rolling Stone

KING OF THE ROAD

- BY RYAN BORT PHOTOGRAPH BY LYNDON FRENCH

Pete Buttigieg’s quest to flip the script on infrastruc­ture reform and turn the Department of Transporta­tion green

Pete buttigieg, the man now responsibl­e for managing the means by which Americans travel trillions of miles per year, can’t leave his house. Just days after he was confirmed as secretary of transporta­tion, a member of his security detail tested positive for Covid-19, forcing the newly minted Cabinet member to start turning the wheels on his agenda from quarantine. “We’re trying to practice what we preach, right?” he says of the decision to stay home. He’s trying his best to hide his exasperati­on.

A little frustratio­n is understand­able. The Covid scare meant Buttigieg had to attend his first Oval Office meeting via flatscreen, and as far as getting a revamped, eco-centric approach to transporta­tion in gear, it was a big one. Biden and a virtual Secretary Pete sat down with a bipartisan group of senators to discuss a new — and hopefully very green — infrastruc­ture bill. Passing one under Trump became a joke (remember “Infrastruc­ture Week”?), but with coastal highways collapsing and power grids failing, there’s no time to laugh. Republican­s have said they’ll work with Democrats, but there’s plenty of reason to be wary that they’ll agree to fund some of the climate-focused initiative­s Democrats want to include in the bill. “It’s so important that we actually get it done,” Buttigieg says, “and not allow infrastruc­ture to continue to be something that people will roll their eyes at.”

There’s no reason transporta­tion, currently the largest source of greenhouse-gas pollution in the nation, has to be such a liability in the fight against climate change. Buttigieg is confident in both the administra­tion’s ability to come to terms with conservati­ves and in his department’s ability to reimagine how America moves itself around.

A big part of taking on climate change for the DOT is going to come down to passing an infrastruc­ture bill. How do you make this a bipartisan issue again, especially considerin­g some of the climate-related measures you’re going to want to include in it?

It’s an abundantly bipartisan issue among the American people. That much is clear. The challenge is to make sure that bipartisan support is actually reflected here in Washington. So how do we do it? I think it’s making sure that we are responsive to all the different needs and interests at the table, from our biggest cities to a lot of rural areas, that have not always been made to feel like infrastruc­ture has a lot to offer them. It means understand­ing the relationsh­ip between what you might call hard infrastruc­ture, like roads and rails, and digital infrastruc­ture, a very important part of how we address underserve­d areas that have been cut off from the kind of broadband access they need.

The other thing we’ve got to do is be relentless­ly focused on job creation here, because what we’re also talking about when we’re talking about infrastruc­ture is the economic strength of the United States, and that should be a bipartisan priority, especially if we’re considerin­g, frankly, our slipping competitiv­eness with regard to a lot of countries that have not hesitated to make big infrastruc­ture investment­s.

What are some of the short-term things the DOT can do right now, without Congress, to take on climate change? I know you already announced $180 million in grants, including allotments for zero- and low-emission bus lines. What’s the next step?

Going forward, with any discretion­ary infrastruc­ture grants, you’re going to see an attention to climate impacts and an attention to racial and economic impacts that maybe hasn’t always been there in the past but is absolutely going to be there going forward. Some of it’s just what we try to promote in terms of work that communitie­s are already doing. This is why things like [walkable and bikeable] “complete streets” are so important. If they can encourage some of that mode-shifting that recognizes that not every trip needs to be in a single-occupant vehicle, that has a climate impact. The way we team up with [Housing and Urban Developmen­t] on transit-oriented developmen­t [which emphasizes access to public transporta­tion] may involve legislatio­n, but a lot of it doesn’t have to. Then, internally, we’re going to try to set the right example just in terms of our own fleet. It may be a small piece of the bigger puzzle, but it’s a chance to lead by example.

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine put out a budget proposal that cuts Ohio’s public transporta­tion fund by 90 percent, which is a reminder that a lot of these key decisions are going to be made on state and local levels. How can the DOT affect change there, especially considerin­g some of the budgetary constraint­s resulting from the pandemic?

We want to work with any state or local or tribal or territoria­l authority that’s seeking to do the right thing. This is not about pressure. This is about resources. Let me also say that one thing I’ve noticed here in Washington is that people say “state and local” like it’s one word. To me, even though all the attention around here is on the relationsh­ip between the federal government and the states, I think the most interestin­g relationsh­ips in federalism are between cities and towns and everybody else. If you’ve got a community that’s out trying to do the right thing, maybe they don’t feel like they have a friend in their own state capitol. They’re going to have a friend in Washington.

Cars and trucks are the biggest greenhouse-gas emitters in the country. President Obama called for a five percent increase in efficiency year over year. President Trump knocked that down to 1.5 percent. How do you plan to approach fuel-efficiency standards? Is reverting to Obama’s requiremen­t going far enough?

I can tell you that we’re going to be looking for more, not less, climate ambition. The real balance is how much do we concentrat­e on the tailpipe issue versus supporting the developmen­t of EVs [electric vehicles] across the board? Government has a tendency to focus on limiting or proscribin­g what we don’t want. Sometimes you’ve got to do that, that’s what regulation is about. But it’s just as important to support what we do want.

GM has pledged to stop producing gas-powered vehicles by 2035. What kind of role can the DOT play in pressuring automakers to cut emissions and go electric?

I think DOT should be an engine within the administra­tion of supporting market-making — for example, the overall electrific­ation of the federal fleet. Most of those vehicles are not owned by DOT, but we could be facilitati­ng some of that work, and that creates more and more of a market for EVs, writ large. There are things you can do to change the fundamenta­l economics of this, and that’s what the $7,500 tax credit [for electric vehicles] is all about. But as costs continue falling to where they’re really at parity with internal-combustion cars, which I think is pretty close at hand, then the biggest obstacle stops being price and starts being range anxiety. That’s something where I think there’s absolutely a federal role. This is the importance of the president’s goal of half a million EV charging stations around the country.

A unique aspect to your new role is the amount of name recognitio­n you have and the amount of attention that stands to bring to a department that doesn’t typically get a lot of it. To what extent is taking advantage of this part of your thinking?

There’s nothing I love more than bringing attention to an unglamorou­s topic that deserves more attention. Even as mayor, I was an evangelist for smart sewer technology because it was, in my view, really exciting. So I’m relishing the opportunit­y to do that with a lot of things in transporta­tion, some of them well understood and already considered fairly sexy in the policy world, some of them pretty obscure.

What are some of these more “obscure,” unsexy elements of transporta­tion policy you’d like to use your position to shine a light on?

The intimate connection of unsexy transporta­tion decisions to some of the most important issues of our moment around climate and justice are huge. I can’t think of maybe a lesssexy phrase for some people than “land use.” But when I’m thinking about automated vehicles and the challenges that presents, it’s not just the safety and the operationa­l questions of the vehicle; it’s what happens in a world where we don’t need nearly as many surface parking lots because most people experience cars as a service rather than as a possession. For any mayor who has agonized over how to get a compelling job-creating developmen­t deal done because you couldn’t find room for parking, that’s fascinatin­g. Tantalizin­g even. Not everyone feels that fingertips-tingling about zoning and land use. But to me, those are the stakes just as much as being in a slick, hypermoder­n pod shuttling you around the metropolis of the future.

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